CAMPAIGNERS fighting to keep hundreds of jobs in Sunderland city centre have been given a stay of execution.
HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) unveiled plans earlier this year to close Gilbridge House and Shackleton House in the centre of Sunderland and Weardale House next to Washington Galleries.
The proposal would see more than 300 staff from Sunderland and about 200 from Washington moved to Waterside House at Sunderland Enterprise Park, or Waterview House next to the wildfowl centre in Washington.
A handful of workers would be forced to relocate to the former benefits centre, in Longbenton, North Tyneside.
Staff mounted a campaign against the plans, which they say could cost city centre businesses more than £10,000 a week, and had been braced for a decision this week – but they have now been told they will have to wait.
“They have deferred the decision,” said Public and Commercial Services union spokesman Mark Taylor. “It was supposed to be at the end of April but we are now looking at it being the middle of May.”
Workers had been delighted with the response to their campaign, said Northumberland and Durham branch president Mr Taylor.
“It had been great, absolutely marvellous,” he said.
“The support has been very solid. We have been in touch with the North East Chamber of Commerce and we went to a council meeting at which we received cross-party support.”
Plans to close Gilbridge and Shackleton Houses first emerged in 2007 but were rejected after a campaign led by city MP Chris Mullin. His successor as MP for Sunderland city centre, Julie Elliott, has also pledged to fight the plan.
Sunderland City Council has also objected to a proposal which contradicts the authority’s economic masterplan, which makes increasing the number of people working in the city centre a priority.
Council leader Coun Paul Watson said: “A key aim of the city council is to continue the ongoing regeneration of all the city’s economic centres for employment, business, leisure and retail use.
“Clearly an announcement such as this can make these ambitions more challenging.”
An HMRC spokeswoman said: “HMRC’s Spending Review settlement means that by 2015 HMRC will be operating with 56,000 full-time equivalent posts – 10,000 fewer than in April 2011.
“The overall reduction in staffing levels will reduce need for accommodation, and in June 2011 HMRC published a schedule for the announcement of office closure proposals and decisions that will take the department right through to the end of the Spending Review period in 2015.
“We propose to close Gilbridge House and Shackleton House in Sunderland, and Weardale House in Washington during the year 2014/15.
“The majority of staff affected by the proposals will be within reasonable daily travel of another HMRC office.
“Office closures will not be detrimental to customer service, and we continue to provide face-to-face services for customers who need that level of service.”
l To sign a petition against the proposals, go to http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/28416